Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Kyiv on Feb. 3 to meet Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The timing of the meeting is quite significant for its relation to tense Turkish-Russian relations. The triumphal announcement of the joint TurkStream project, a development supposed to strengthen the economic and geopolitical ties between Ankara and the Kremlin and further boost their footprint in the energy landscape of Europe took place on early January. Since then we have witnessed growing tension between the two powers, triggered by their opposing interests in Libya and Syria.
Among the main issues of the Kyiv meeting and the simultaneous Turkey-Ukraine business forum was the increase of the bilateral trade volume between the two countries from 4 billion USD in 2019 to 10 billion USD in 2020. Also, there have been talks about a remarkable partnership in the defense sector, as the two countries are considering the joint production of drones, a project to be led by the Ukrainian Ukrspecexport and the Turkish Baykar. However, the part of the meeting that almost exclusively drew the media’s attention was Erdogan’s reference to the annexation of Crimea as illegal and his support for the Turkic ethnic group of the Crimean Tatars.
Denouncing Crimea Annexation: Not A New Turkish Narrative
In 2014, in the aftermath of Euromaidan and the ensuing revolution and ouster of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine Russia increased its deep involvement in Ukrainian internal affairs with a combination of diplomatic means and force projection. The Kremlin swiftly moved and annexed the Crimean peninsula—where traditionally the vast majority of the population have been ethnic Russians; the paradox of the integration to Ukraine can be traced back to the early years of the Khrushchev administration in the USSR when the newly-appointed Soviet leader made a gesture of goodwill to his favorite oblast in Ukraine because of how much Ukrainians suffered during the horrifying Holodomor famine.
Since the very first moment of the Russian annexation of Crimea—which was officially declared after a regional referendum in March 2014—Ankara has refused to recognize Russian authority in the region and has constantly questioned the legitimacy and credibility of the whole process. Considering that Ankara has been moving closer and closer to the Kremlin since 2015—with the exception of the accidental Sukhoi Su-24 shoot down—the Turkish persistence on denouncing Crimea might seem odd. There are two main reasons why Ankara keeps adopting this rigid stance.
The Turkish Perspective
A vital part of the Turkish foreign policy is obtaining political leverage through affiliated religious or ethnic groups abroad. This is the case in Azerbaijan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China, Northern Cyprus and in specific parts of Thrace in Northern Greece, just to name a few. This is also the case in Crimea, where the Crimean Tatars account for approximately 13% of the population—between 250,000 to 300,000. Crimean Tatars are a Turkic group of Sunni Muslims. Massive numbers of them were deported during the mid-1940s, over alleged and dubious accusations of collaboration with the Nazis. Even though it would be outrageous to compare Stalin’s atrocities to the way President Putin is treating Crimean Tatars today, it goes without question that their rights are not being adequately respected. As we have seen before, Erdogan is relentlessly trying to portray himself as the protector of Turk or Turkic communities, and fellow Sunni Muslim minorities worldwide. This is why the highlighting of the Crimea issue during the Kyiv meeting is fitting and consistent with his approach.
Erdogan’s Political Acumen
At the same time, Erdogan knows how to play his cards right and utilize all means available in a foreign policy and diplomacy context. Russia and Turkey have been in a standoff lately with accusations from both sides about the developments in the Libyan and Syrian front. Ankara has been accusing Russia about the involvement of the so-called “Wagner Group” in Libya, through official channels or government-affiliated media.
In Syria, Erdogan understands that his role is being gradually limited as the Assad regime is establishing itself across the country and keeps gaining further strength day by day. Syrian government forces backed by Russian Airforce have been moving towards Idlib, in order to clear the last rebel strongholds. Many of these rebel groups are backed and controlled by Turkey, considering that one of Ankara’s favorite means to achieve political ends, is to secure leverage through forces on the ground. Under those circumstances, Ankara has strongly opposed the Russian-backed offensive of the Syrian forces and threatened with another wide-scale Turkish operation in Idlib. This new escalation has allegedly cost the lives of seven Turkish soldiers, one civilian and 76 Syrian soldiers, according to Turkey.
Turning back to the Kyiv outcomes—and under the light of the Syrian developments—we can now understand why Erdogan has stressed out the issue of the annexation of Crimea once again, and apparently achieved the political and media attention he was seeking. Looking at the bigger picture, we can say that the statements about Crimea or the escalation in the Syrian front are not enough to put Turkish-Russian relations at serious risk. The relations between Ankara and Kremlin have been sealed by two strategic partnerships, namely the TurkStream project and the S-400 deal. Erdogan is simply using such political maneuvers in order to consolidate and further enhance his gains in Turkey’s current open fronts or to pursue other objectives of his by way of a quid pro quo logic.